Four hours after one shade of blue was ignominious in defeat, another, a touch darker, emerged triumphant. Around the time Italy exited this city, Japan put Denmark to the sword in Rustenburg and the round of 16 welcomed the Blue Samurais, who became the second team after South Korea to qualify from Asia.
For the 2002 World Cup co-hosts, this was a first outside their own countries. Showing scenes of celebrations at Shibui Square in Tokyo, where Japanese had congregated at 3.30 am to watch the match, CNN said on Friday that the victory helped, at least temporarily, lift the gloom of an economy that is slowing recovering now.
Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo played a part in that, teaching football’s more famous exponents how to successfully use the Jabulani during free-kicks. From some 37 yards, Honda drove home.
Endo went around the ‘wall’ from closer range, and after the first half, Denmark had more possession but Japan the goals. Honda then showed his skills from open play nicely setting up Shinji Okazaki to kill the game after Jon Dahl Tomasson pulled one back on the rebound from his own penalty kick.
Reaffirming Honda’s ability in dead-ball situations, Yoshiyuki Osumi, a Japanese journalist who has been covering World Cups since 1974, said Shunsuke Nakamura continues to be Japan’s best free-kick exponent. “And he (Honda) wanted Endo to take the second free-kick because it was from a closer range just to confuse Denmark who thought Honda would shoot again,” said Osumi, who was at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Thursday night.
Osumi said the victory against Cameroon made a “big, big difference” to the team’s confidence even though “it was a very bad game”. “That’s why we played much better against The Netherlands. Yesterday it was a very confident Japan that took the field.”
Osumi also credited coach Takeshi Okada for getting the team to play “the Japanese way.”
That’s defending as a team and attacking as one. “We are very small in size (only three outfield players were above six-foot in the starting line-up), so it wouldn’t be enough if one player challenged a Dane. You needed two or three and Japan managed to do that through out yesterday’s game.” “Mr Okada has also worked very hard on team unity. This team is one unit and that’s made a lot of difference.
The Japan squad of 2006 was better in terms of quality and experience. But it was a broken team even before the World Cup started. And in 2002, we had a young set of players who were satisfied at having progressed to the second round. That’s why, against Turkey, we didn’t play well,” he said.
So now would Japan live up to Okada’s pre-tournament prediction of a semi-final berth? “Every man is entitled to dreaming. Up first is Paraguay and they are a very good team,” he said.